Lancaster Barnstormers manager Ross Peeples is a veteran of baseball’s frontier by now.
As pundits and fans alike bicker over the direction of the game at the Major League level, Peeples and the rest of the Atlantic League are inside baseball’s test tube, trying out change after change as baseball strives to sort out its future.
“You’ve just got to play with what you’re dealt with,” Peeples said during a July interview inside his office at Clipper Magazine Stadium.
The variety — and extremity — of the different playing cards in the hands of Peeples and the rest of the Atlantic League’s managers has only grown this season, with the institution of nine new experimental rules as part of the league’s partnership with MLB.
The rules range from a simple change in base size to more intense ideas, like TrackMan radar calling balls and strikes, and “stealing” first base.
[Major League Baseball] reassured our owners and our board that everything we’re testing is ultimately intended to get to the big leagues,” Atlantic League President Rick White said at the league’s All-Star Game on July 11.
White knows it’s unlikely that all the experimental rules will climb to the top of baseball’s ladder, but he also knows that his league benefits from being a magnet for a baseball fan’s intrigue — national media like The Athletic and The Washington Post came out to the Atlantic League’s All Star Game in York, where TrackMan called balls and strikes for the first time.
That compensation the Atlantic League receives from this relationship can be hard to quantify, but there are more concrete benefits, too.
Major League Baseball is paying for the installation of the expensive TrackMan equipment, while also training and financing two people in each of the eight Atlantic League locales to operate it.
Additionally, TrackMan will collect advanced data on players — such as exit velocity, spin rate and the like — that should make it easier for major league organizations to scout Atlantic League players.
For its trouble, MLB gets a testing ground full of former big league players who are familiar with how the game is played at its highest level.
“We, as a league, really feel like pioneers who are helping to determine the future direction of the game,” White said. “We understand that everything we’re testing is at the discretion of Major League Baseball, but we also understand that they’re testing these rules and initiatives for a reason, and if they’re successful, in the eyes of MLB, the things we’re working on today may be in the big league game in the not-too-distant future.”
It can benefit the Atlantic League to remain close with Major League Baseball from an organizational standpoint, but it’s also crucial that the on-the-field product doesn’t stray too far from affiliated ball.
The Atlantic League is a destination for career revival. The league’s website says over 40 percent of its players own major league service time. If the experimental rules create too large a gap between the Atlantic League and the affiliated ranks, the Atlantic League could find itself unable to lure players.
So, from the Atlantic League’s perspective, it’s important that MLB changes too, keeping the chasm between the two leagues as narrow as possible.
It’s reassuring to Peeples that, when the Atlantic League has been asked to test rules before, affiliated baseball has shown a willingness to adopt them.
Peeples pointed to one instance in particular, when the Atlantic League tested an automatic intentional walk rule that made to the Major Leagues shortly thereafter.
Now, MLB’s discussions with the Atlantic League seem to indicate that MLB is serious about implementing some of the rules in this new, more drastic, wave.
“Are they just telling us that to blow smoke? I don’t know,” Peeples said. “But going over the past, when they wanted us to try [rules], we tried them. Now it’s in the big leagues. I think they are serious about changing the game more offensively.”